America’s own Chernobyl: How one writer exposed the secrets of her toxic childhood
A young Kristen Iversen. All photos courtesy of Kristen Iversen.
Natalie Coleman is a writer based in Cincinnati and New York. She is attending NYU’s Literary Reportage graduate program in the class of 2018. You can find her on Twitter at @_nataliecoleman.
This spring marks three decades since the tragic nuclear disaster of Chernobyl in Ukraine, but few know of the nuclear catastrophe that happened on our own soil more than 40 years ago. During the Cold War, Kristen Iversen was growing up in the shadow of Rocky Flats, a secret nuclear weapons plant that produced the plutonium at the heart of every American nuclear bomb. After multiple fires and an explosion that nearly decimated the entirety of Denver, the factory exposed the Colorado community to harsh radiation that still lingers today.
After more than ten years of extensive research, reporting, interviewing and writing, Iversen published “Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats.” Part memoir and part investigative journalism, the book brings to light the decades-long environmental scandal of the Rocky Flats factory, detailing the contamination, the cancer that seeped through the population through the air and groundwater, and the long-lasting effects on the people who lived in the plutonium-saturated community of Arvada, Colo., which sits a mere 10 miles from Denver.
Rocky Flats eventually stopped building weapons in 1989 after the FBI raided the plant, forcing the factory operators to plead guilty to criminal violations of environmental law.
Not only did Iversen’s book peel back government secrets hidden in the walls of Rocky Flats, but she also wrote of her father’s alcoholism and the secrets concealed in her own home. As a child, Iversen and her siblings would find half empty bottles of amber liquor hidden behind the couch cushions and under chairs, the buried relics of her father’s addiction.
She writes of one instance when she poured the alcohol down the drain with her sister, only to be caught by their mother, who until then had never spoken of the trove of hidden bottles. “I stop inviting friends over to the house,” she writes. “It’s too embarrassing to explain the bottles under the sofa or behind the chair—the bottles we’re not supposed to know about.”
In her 30’s, Iversen eventually took a job at the Rocky Flats factory, where she typed memos. One day, she returned home from the factory, and made dinner for her two sons. She put them to bed, came downstairs, fixed herself a cup of tea, and switched on the TV and saw a Nightline special on the factory, detailing the radiation, the unsafe working conditions and the disasters that took place in her own backyard. When a millionth of a gram can cause a significant effect on health, it’s clear to see how alarming the news came to the community. “I learned that I was working next to fourteen tons of plutonium, most of it unsafely stored. The plant was a mess. How could I work at the plant and not know all these things?” Iversen said. “That day I knew I had to quit, and I knew I would research and write a book. I wanted to understand the story—the whole story.”
Iversen’s deft maneuvers between the details of her girlhood and the failures of the factory workers and government activate a revelatory dynamic. “It was only by including the experiences of me, my family, my neighbors, and my coworkers at Rocky Flats that I could truly bring the story to life,” Iversen says. “I wanted to write a book about the two things that I was forbidden to write about. It was indeed a challenge to write intimately about things that, as a family, we were never supposed to discuss, including my father’s drinking. And yet, the end result was a tremendous sense of clarity and understanding.”
The plant’s day-to-day activities were highly secretive. Most of the people living near Rocky Flats had no idea that plutonium bombs were being built near their homes, let alone that the factory was leaving more than 3,000 barrels of radioactive waste to rust and leak plutonium into the water and soil of the fields surrounding the factory. “The rumor in the neighborhood was that the factory made cleaning supplies,” Iversen says. “My mother thought they were making Scrubbing Bubbles.”
When Iversen was young, she joked with her siblings that “if there was anything to get from the factory, we already got it! We lived right next door to the plant. We’d make jokes like, ‘Rocky Flats is the reason we all have such glowing personalities.’ It was sort of gallows humor because we were frightened.”
Over the course of the late 50’s and 60’s, Rocky Flats saw many accidents and fires that sent plumes of radioactive smoke and particulates into the Denver area. In an interview with The Atlantic, Iversen explains the vast extent of the damage from the factory’s first fire on September 11, 1957.
The second fire, which occurred on Mother’s Day in 1969, destroyed many of the filters and measuring equipment, meaning it is impossible to know exactly how much plutonium and radioactive materials were released into the environment. The building became so hot that the roof itself began to melt. If even a tiny gram of plutonium is inhaled into the lungs, it can lodge itself in the body to create a constant and ongoing source of radiation, leading to cancer and other health effects.
To illuminate the lasting damage of the plutonium on the Arvada community, Iversen follows the stories of people from her community, friends and neighbors who dealt with terrible health issues—mostly cancer—that seemingly had no source. The most shocking results can be seen in the diagnosis of Tamara Smith Meza, one of Iversen’s former neighbors and a longtime friend. Meza grew up in a small home directly downwind from Rocky Flats. Her family was Mormon, and so they lived off the land: they grew their own organic vegetables and raised their own cattle, which maximized their exposure to the radiation. Meza has had nine brain tumors in her life and has undergone extensive surgery for each. “They thought she wouldn’t make it; she’s a miracle,” Iversen says. “So much of her brain has been removed that she cannot set a table or pick up a cup, but her language skills remain intact.”
A Community Continues to Protest
It’s likely that Iversen’s book will never cease to resonate with the communities surrounding Rocky Flats, yet still, so many people are unaware of the extent of the radiation and its effects. Every week, hundreds of residents in the Rocky Flats community protest the government’s decision to build homes, parks, and hiking trails in an area so irradiated that it will be uninhabitable for the next 500,000 years, according to Iversen’s research. This past May thousands of former Rocky Flats homeowners settled a $375 million lawsuit, more than a quarter century after the legal action was first filed.
Shortly after the settlement, a group of university researchers released a new survey to examine the severe health impact Rocky Flats had on the surrounding area, garnering about 2,000 respondents. The levels of contamination on this site are higher than any other site in the country, and yet the Department of Energy says that it’s “safe enough” for development, as companies work to build homes and hiking trails under the clouds of hidden plutonium. Iversen has spoken for hearings in Washington, D.C. regarding the use of Rocky Flats land and continues to be an advocate for those affected by radiation, and currently universities in the Denver area are working to compile surveys and tests to block the growth of development.
In the back of her book, Iversen gives insight into the impetus behind the project in a short essay and interview:
“These kinds of stories—stories that have been kept secret or hidden or overlooked for years—are essential for us, as a culture, to hear and understand as we consider how to deal with the environmental and health legacies of our nuclear industry, and how to move forward in the future.”